When you’re running a sci-fi RPG, how much the game world differs from the present day will depend on how far into the future the game projects — but given the rapid pace of technological advancement in the past hundred years, an awful lot is likely to have changed.
This can lead to a sort of paralysis. As the GM, you might be tempted to explain every little thing that’s different about the future — even stuff that the players probably won’t care about, and that has no impact on the game.
Instead, fight that impulse. You can handwave the vast majority of those changes.
Just assume that many problems have been solved, and that most stuff works better than the versions we have today. Cancer? Cured, at least for the wealthy. Holes in the ozone layer? There’s some weird bacteria that fixed them. How much data can my storage crystal hold? As much as you want. You get the idea — if it’s just color, let it be color and move on.
At the same time, you can leave some noticeable elements unchanged in order to emphasize the highlights of the setting. In the Aliens movies, for example, most firearms aren’t that different from modern guns, and the insides of the ships look like boiler rooms — but they have FTL flight and some nifty high-tech gear. The stuff that hasn’t changed stands out, and it enhances the Aliens milieu.
The brilliant Burning Empires RPG formalizes color right in the rules. If something is just there to look or sound cool, and has no mechanical effect, it’s color. That leaves the GM — and the whole group — free to focus on the stuff that does matter: the drama, the space battles, the adventure.
Reading Burning Empires is what gave me the idea for this post. Even if your sci-fi RPG of choice doesn’t build handwaving and color into its rules, it’s a great concept to drift into your campaign.